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Strength vs. Endurance: Why You Are Wasting Your Time in the Gym

Medical professionals still steer older patients towards endurance, to their detriment.

Mark Rippetoe


January 29, 2014 - 9:35 am


(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)

When you consult a medical professional about exercise, the standard recommendation amounts to a prescription for a certain number of minutes per day or per week. The conventional wisdom equates “exercise” with “cardio” — endurance exercise performed at a low to moderate intensity for a continuous period of time. We call it LSD (long, slow distance). The assumption seems to be that as long as your heart is capable of working at 65% of its assumed maximum capacity, that’s about all you need to do.

The fact is that a properly designed strength training program constitutes a much better use of the same amount of time a “cardio” workout takes, and provides far more benefits to your quality of life.

This is especially true if you are older.

Assuming you are not a heart patient, strength training provides enough cardiovascular work to serve the purpose, and produces an increase in strength that endurance exercise cannot provide. Here’s why:

1. Not doing the things that make you strong has its consequences.

Increased strength is produced by activity that requires you to use your muscles to produce force — more force than you normally produce in daily activities, and more force than LSD requires. When you use your muscles in an effective strength program, sugar fuels the activity, and efficient carbohydrate metabolism is necessary for your health. A lack of active carbohydrate metabolism is very closely correlated with the development of Type II Diabetes and other unpleasant things. Type II Diabetes shortens your lifespan, in addition to making your shorter life a lot more trouble.

This cannot be emphasized enough: using your muscles in a way that makes them stronger also improves the way your body handles the sugar that can cause metabolic problems like diabetes.

When the human body is allowed to sit on its ass instead of doing the muscular work that keeps it strong, it is being placed in a situation that its physiology is not designed for. Muscular activity is natural. Inactivity is not. Intellectual pursuits notwithstanding, doing the things that keep you strong may well be the most important things you do.harperdeadlift

(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013) 

2. The deterioration of strength is a serious problem for older people.

The loss of muscle mass is a perfectly natural consequence of not dying, but that doesn’t mean you have to just let it happen. The loss of muscle mass means the loss of strength, which means the loss of physical capacity. An old weak person is not nearly as much fun to be around — or as fun to be — as an old strong person. As we grow older, one of the primary regrets is that we can’t do the things we used to be able to do. Staying strong solves many of these problems.

Staying strong also prolongs life, which is a good thing if you’re strong enough to enjoy it. A 2008 British Medical Journal meta-analysis showed that strength levels correlated better with longevity than any other parameter. Better than BMI, and better than cardiorespiratory fitness.

Stronger people live longer. Which is very interesting considering the fact that we are so often told how important it is to walk/jog/bike, and that we are almost never told to do our deadlifts and squats.

And while we’re here, know that gaining a little muscular bodyweight while you train is also associated with increased longevity. Several studies have shown that being slightly “overweight” is associated with greater longevity than being of “normal” weight, as identified by the Body Mass Index. This probably has as much to do with the fact that the BMI is a flawed metric as it does with the fact that having more muscle is protective against things that kill you.

3. Being strong also requires you to use your muscles in a way that works your bones.

Your skeleton is the system of levers that your muscles operate to interact with your environment. The loads that your muscles move are actually moved by your bones, and they adapt to being loaded the same way your muscles do — they get stronger. For bones, this means denser and harder to break.

Older people are particularly susceptible to falls and the bone fractures associated with them. A pelvic fracture for an older person is essentially a death sentence. People fall when they “lose their balance” — when your body’s weight gets in a position so far from your feet that you lack the strength to control your position. Adequate strength makes falling less likely.

The combination of being strong enough to not fall when you lose your balance and having denser bones if you do fall is much better than Medicare.



(image credit: Thomas Campitelli, The Aasgaard Company 2013)

4. The process of intentionally getting stronger also improves cardiovascular function.

It has been shown in dozens of studies that a strength program rigorous enough to work well is also rigorous enough to make you breathe harder and elevate your heart rate. This gets you in better cardiovascular shape, even though it’s not distance running.

Contrast this with LSD — the “cardio” usually performed conscientiously by everyone concerned about their health. It makes your heart beat faster, it makes you breathe harder … and that’s about it.

LSD is necessarily performed at a low intensity, and it cannot make you stronger because it’s not “heavy” enough. It doesn’t work your back or your arms, and it uses a short range of motion for the muscles of the hips and legs. And the only load on your bones is that of your own bodyweight, which was already there anyway.

It’s better to spend your time doing a correctly designed program of full range-of-motion barbell exercises that use progressively heavier resistance than doing “cardio.” I know what your doctor told you, and I’m suggesting that you think about it a little more before you decide to just keep putting one foot in front of the other for a couple of miles for the rest of your non-strong life.

Mark Rippetoe is the author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, Practical Programming for Strength Training, Strong Enough?, Mean Ol' Mr. Gravity, and numerous journal, magazine and internet articles. Rip was a competitive powerlifter for ten years, has coached many lifters and athletes, and has given seminars to thousands around the country.

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Top Rated Comments   
You seem to be missing the point. But I like the dancing mice. Is there a video?
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
OMG. Coach Rip writing for PJMedia! Thank you!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
My next article will explain why barbells are better than machines. Stay tuned...
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (69)
All Comments   (69)
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I drive a truck for a living. This does not mean that I get to sit on my backside all day because the nature of the load means I have to unload it by hand. I used to find shifting the tonnage difficult and got minor injuries, but since taking up - I'm about six months in - progressive compound barbell workouts (deadlifts, press etc) I've nearly doubled my strength, work is a lot easier, and I don't get injured. Also, at fifty three, I'm stronger, and for some reason /faster/ than I've ever been. The strength increase has also cut my cycling to work time down a fair bit. Life is just easier if you're stronger...
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
You'll build more muscle when you get stronger..

Your metabolism gets jacked which in turn ...believe or not...keeps you warm.

That's why weaker older folks are always cold.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Dear Mark,

I have read this article with great interest (as I have your book). However, as a scientist, I must point out that you have committed the cardinal sin in writing what is to be an article above the "some stuff popped into my head blog post": There are no sources.

Now, unless I missed them, could I please ask you to post verifications to the claims you make? As someone who has done cardio for a while, this is a very important issue for me. If cardio is ineffective, it needs to be done away with.

Thank you very much indeed for writing.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't normally reference an article for the popular media with footnotes. Neither does anybody else. As a scientist, you must understand the limitations of the literature and its usefulness to the general public. Either these ideas make sense to you, or they don't, and as a scientist you know how to look things up.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have been been very diligent about working with a personal trainer 3 days a week for over a year and a half. We do a mix of Rippetoe exercises in with some that you would not approve of. But I am, at 57, stronger than I have ever been in my life. However, just yesterday I did a treadmill stress test to maximum heart rate. The Dr's first comment to me was: "You are out of shape". I just started adding 2-3 days of cardio to my exercise regiment (still doing the 3 days a week, 1 hour per session, of strength training as well). But I have very, very poor cardiovascular conditioning. This keeps me from doing a lot of things I enjoy. Also, during my weight lifting time, I have actually gained both weight AND body fat. I am at a very unhealthy 29.6% body fat now.... higher than I have ever been in my life and a BMI of 28.2. Since I've added the cardio to my workouts I have lost 5 pounds. Also, I am not eating as much as most strength trainers advise, but I don't seem to be losing muscle mass or strength. I am very slowing improving my cardio and also doing more stretching (dynamic stretching about twice a week for 15 to 30 minutes). So, respectfully, Mr Rippetoe, I have to say that strength training alone has actually led to de-conditioning in my cardiovascular health.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
While most of the commenters seem to be of the male gender, as a female I have been very discouraged in the results of building muscle by the popular methods of machines and dead weights. As one holding the opinion that big muscles are just not that attractive on the female form, I've come to discover an effective method of building up strength along the full fiber of the muscle, at the same time increasing flexibility, increasing neurokinetic and lymphatic flow and increasing heart rate with HIIT. All this can be done on a daily basis for about 18 minutes, doesn't require any equipment, or floorwork, and can be done in just a small space. It is called TTapp, founded by Theresa Tapp, and some of the exercises can be seen on YouTube.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark R. has distilled a lifetime worth of experimentation into his Starting Strength Program. The results are the maximum amount of muscle without dedicating a ridiculous amount of time. You truly get stronger, but do no look our of proportion. I feel better and get a little bit of that quickness off the dribble that I used to have back in HS. It does not focus on beach muscles, but on hitting multiple muscle groups with the same 5 core lifts. Thanks to Mark R. for allowing so many to benefit from all his experimentation.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't believe there is a "one size fits all" when it comes to exercise. I swim laps, usually four or five times a week, about a mile each time. As I swim I can almost feel the muscles in my arms, legs, back and stomach getting a workout and when I'm finished with my swim I feel stronger then ever. On the other hand lifting for me, at my advanced age of 65, usually means that the following day I'm not going to swim. It didn't take long for me to figure out which exercise I was going to concentrate on. Oh yeah, a lot of bike riding as well.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
When speaking of exercise in general, you're right. People need to do what they like, so that they'll actually do the exercise. But this article is about strength training, and swimming is not strength training.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
We all know that reading the wrong medical books can kill you, and as someone whose BMI labels me as obese despite my 11% body fat, I certainly don't worship medical orthodoxy.

However I do believe that there are several components to fitness, including strength, endurance and flexibility, among others perhaps.

I don't think any one type of gym-training adequately addresses all three. Unless you regularly partake in whole-body functional activity like skiing or rock climbing, my guess is that you really ought to cross train in the gym.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember youngsters posting here, he is talking about older folks. When you are <40 years old most people do get enough strength building work. He seems to be pushing more weight-lifting when your older.
I have been playing softball/baseball for 40 years, it kills my knees to run (once every 3-4 days) distance anyway-so I will lift more.
Why does a fifty year old man need to be able to run more than a mile without stopping - and bench press his own weight? I never understood running 5 miles or more - why? Is it really more beneficial to your overall health to run MORE!
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm in my 50s and was having knee and back pain issues after running despite lifting and I do have a strong back. Was replacing shoes more often and going to more padding thinking that would help. Ended up shifting to the minimalst shoes with virtually no padding and voila' no more knee or back pain. Most folks have calf pain initially after shifting (I didn't, but then, I never skip leg day so I have strong calves which may have helped).

So I can run 8 miles again with no pain. Why 8? Path goes through some nice scenery, gives me time to think. I only run once a week though, I vary the rest of the week with other types of cardio and a lifting day.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
When I hurt my back guess what the physical therapist had me do? Weight training. It works. I think the issue is people don't like to be sore after a workout so they choose the wimpy walking, then they feel good about themselves and go have a wopper with cheese... and a diet Coke.
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
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